Out of the Frying Pan And Into the Antipodes--
Recipes & reminiscences from 70-plus years of New Zealand & Australian food; with some of the loves, some of the lovers, and some of the culinary & social history.
(A few names & places have been changed to protect the guilty)

Monday, 4 June 2018

Killing Vegetables: Silverbeet

Killing Vegetables:

The unfortunate baby is gonna get this to eat, like it or not. She’s mashing it up fiercely—she’s already cooked it fiercely. Crumbly potato and very, very limp silverbeet. Now she forces it—grinds it, really—through a sieve with grim determination. Even at the tender age of three I can see it’s grim determination.
    Ugh! The result’s sort of grey! My poor little baby brother is sat up in his highchair with his bib on. She puts the heavy china baby’s dish on the chair’s tray and spoons the mush into him. He doesn’t like it. Even at the tender age of three I’m not surprised.
    It’s one of my earliest memories. Fiercely cooked silverbeet leaves ameliorated with finely sieved potato were very good for a baby—he’d have been just old enough for solids—because silverbeet is full of iron. A fact which was reinforced over the next decade and a half. Silverbeet is full of iron and ipso facto very good for you.

Swiss Chard By Any Other Name…
It’s always been “silverbeet” in New Zealand in my lifetime. “Swiss chard” if you’re English. I would say “silver beet” if you’re Australian, but actually these days it’s miscalled “spinach” in the wide brown land. It is not spinach. (Real spinach is called “English spinach” by the Aussies). Anything encountered in an Australian restaurant under the name of spinach is almost sure—ninety-nine point nine percent probability—to be silverbeet.

Not As Sweet
There were two ways to cook silverbeet when I was a kid in the late 1940s and the 1950s: either boil it till dead or steam it till dead. The latter was achieved by putting it in the steamer compartment of the handy double pot arrangement, placing a pound of large peeled potatoes underneath in plenty of water and boiling until they were cooked through. It’s amazing how dead a feisty-looking good-sized pot of silverbeet can be when given this treatment. “It cooks down.” Yes, Mum, it sure does. It was very cheap, doubtless because most families grew their own in the back yard of the standard suburban quarter-acre section. It’s very suited to the NZ climate: lots of rain and enough sunshine to make it flourish like—well, unfortunately, like silverbeet. Goes mad. The real maniacs put compost on it, too.
    Silverbeet was our family’s main green vegetable every week for something like fifteen years. It was run a close second by cabbage, true, but you couldn’t have called that green when Mum had finished with it. (See the earlier blog post, “Killing Vegetables: Cabbage”)
    I don’t think any of us actually liked it, but most of the time we choked it down. Got it in the neck if we didn’t—quite. Mum can’t have liked it, either, because by the time the youngest was about six or seven and Dad had a better-paid job it quietly vanished in favour of green beans and frozen peas.

Why, Why, Why?
Well, like I said, it was cheap and it was “full of iron.” Why cook it until dead? That was what the cookbooks told you to do. You can’t blame the hard-working, earnest home cooks of the Forties and Fifties: they were following the contemporary gurus of the printed word just as faithfully as today’s home cooks follow, uh… Jamie Oliver?? Nigella Lawson??? Australia’s famed Maggie Beer, beringed fingers in the food an’ all? God!

Swiss chard doesn’t appear in Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management in 1861. She does have several recipes for spinach, and we can see the idea, at least, of boiling the leaves must originate with this sort of recipe. Under “TO BOIL SPINACH (English Mode)” she writes:

“Put it [2 pailfuls of cleaned spinach] into a very large saucepan, with about 1/2 pint of water, just sufficient to keep the spinach from burning, and the above proportion [2 heaped tablespoonfuls] of salt. Press it down frequently with a wooden spoon, that it may be done equally; and when it has boiled for rather more than 10 minutes, or until it is perfectly tender, drain it in a colander, squeeze it quite dry, and chop it finely. Put the spinach into a clean stewpan, with the butter [1 oz.] and a seasoning of pepper; stir the whole over the fire until quite hot; then put it on a hot dish, and garnish with sippets of toasted bread.”

    The spinach is pretty well subdued by this treatment, true, but the addition of the butter and the second cooking make it lovely and creamy. She also advises adding a little nutmeg, mace, or lemon juice.
    Unfortunately if you steam silverbeet leaves for half an hour to forty-five minutes they do reduce to a limp, damp consistency, but even with the addition of a little nutmeg, which Mum did sometimes add, they don’t taste good. You can sure taste the iron, though. Your tongue tends to go furry. Butter was a staple in our kitchen but the silverbeet rarely got favoured with it and if it did, it’d be a tiny knob perching on the congealed dark mass on your plate.

Desperately Seeking Swiss Chard?
I thought Swiss chard might make an appearance in A.G. Payne’s Cassell's Vegetarian Cookery of 1891, but it doesn’t. He has several recipes for spinach, probably from Mrs Beeton—his detailed instructions for cleaning it certainly are. Chard doesn’t appear in 1908 in the American recipe book 365 Foreign Dishes, either. In Mary Kennedy Core’s The Khaki Kook Book: A Collection of a Hundred Cheap and Practical Recipes Mostly from Hindustan, published in 1917 but largely containing recipes collected during the 19th century when she was an American missionary in India, we do find a rather grudging mention of it, in her “Edible Leaves Curry”:

    “This may not sound especially inviting, but in a pinch one might want to try it. The Hindus make curries from many things that we would throw away. Turnip tops, beet tops, radish tops, the young and tender leaves of many jungle plants, also the leaves of many trees; all these are used in making excellent curries. Dandelion greens, spinach, Swiss chard, may all be used in the same way.”

    I assumed that with silverbeet’s strong presence in the Antipodean culinary tradition it would be sure to appear, at least under the name of Swiss chard, in The Art of Living in Australia by Philip E. Muskett; Together with Three Hundred Australian Cookery Recipes and Accessory Kitchen Information by Mrs. H. Wicken, circa 1894, but I couldn’t find it there, or even spinach. Mrs Wicken’s recipes are still very much in the English tradition, which considered Swiss chard at best a peripheral vegetable.

How To Kill Silverbeet
By the late 1940s, however, the Antipodean tradition—that is, the tradition of killing silverbeet—was well established. The Green and Gold Cookery Book, published in Adelaide, South Australia, and popular throughout the country, ran through umpteen editions during the first half of the 20th century. Its 15th edition, circa 1949, gives successive recipes for spinach and silverbeet:

Remove the white stalk and discoloured leaves. Put into a saucepan with the water that clings to the leaves. Add one teaspoon salt and cook with the lid off till tender - about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain in a colander, press out water with a plate, and chop. Return to saucepan. Add one teaspoon butter, lemon juice, and pepper to taste. Serve on pieces of toast.

Silver Beet
Prepare the same way as spinach, and if young, cook the same way. If old, cook in half pint boiling salted water. Drain free from water, and serve the same as spinach.

    After boiling “old” silverbeet (it was always the mature leaves that were eaten, in any case, not the young ones) you’d need that plate to press the maltreated vegetable dry, too right. And note that mean helping of butter!
    I’m not sure how the toast got in there. It’s possibly a cross between Mrs Beeton’s “sippets” and the genteel fashion of the late 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, of serving “first toast” and “second toast”, which were savoury dishes at either end of the meal. The custom was very popular with the British Raj. Vegetables could be used, though offerings like tinned sardines on toast were more common.
    By the 1940s, however, boiled silverbeet was just an ordinary component of the standard “meat and three veg”-type Australasian meal.
    The same book gives this horrid advice, quite standard at the time:

“Green Vegetables must always be put into fast-boiling water with one pinch of carbonate soda, brought quickly to the boil and boiled with the lid partly off. If this is not done greens lose their bright colour, and are apt to be tough.”

    Where that “apt to be tough” came from would be interesting to know. Try it. Leafy greens don't become tough if over-boiled, they become mushy. Several contemporary recipes agree that the sodium bicarbonate was meant to keep them green, but in fact adding it risks making them taste horrible—it’s very easy to overdo it. Thank God Mum spared us that, at least!

The Great Silverbeet Divide

Downunder, silverbeet’s been an important green vegetable for generations. In Britain, it hasn’t. In 1978 in Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book (London, Michael Joseph) we find an English writer listing it as “Swiss Chard and Other Leaf-Beets”, rather than as “Swiss Chard” alone. And she certainly doesn’t see it as the green vegetable that had become a standard in New Zealand and Australian households by then. The green leaves are given barely a passing mention. It's the stems that are significant:

“Several forms of beet (or rather Beta vulgaris, var. cicla) are grown not for their roots but for the enlarged midribs of the leaves, which are boiled, and have something of the delicacy of seakale.”

    Under the subheading “How to prepare Chard, Etc.” there is nothing about preparing the leaves. It’s only the stems which are considered:

“Cut off the green part of the leaves; sometimes scissors are better than a knife for doing this. … Wash the stems. Cut them into 10 cm. (4 in.) lengths, stripping off the fine skin and stringy part as you go. These pieces can then be cooked in salted water until tender, or in a blanc … These stems are the best part, and are usually served with a sauce on their own once they have been cooked. For instance, with a cream or mornay sauce, a sauce aurore, or a velouté seasoned with curry powder; some of the cooking water is used in making these sauces, along with milk. Another way is to spread the cooked chard in a shallow buttered dish, cover it with a flour-based sauce and turn it into a gratin.”

   Her detailed recipes incorporate chard into a variety of complex dishes where it’s far from the main feature.
    Well, there you have it. Downunder the stalk part of silverbeet has traditionally been ignored, and varieties with inedible thin, stringy green stalks are often sold today. In the European tradition, which in this instance does include British cuisine as well, it's the stalks or stems that are prized. They’re slightly sweet, very delicate in taste.
    That’s not just from the books. I was stunned when Gégé produced a fine bunch of silverbeet for dinner one night in Paris in the winter of 1973 and proceeded to carefully cut off and discard the green bits. The dish he then produced was little short of a miracle to one who’d only known Mum’s cooked-until-dead silverbeet. Jane Grigson is so right in saying “the great country for cooking it is undoubtedly France.”

Here’s my attempt to reproduce a typical French recipe:

Delicate Creamed Silverbeet Stalks
Per Person:  2 fat stalks silverbeet;
2 tablespoons full cream milk (or a little more);
1/2 level tablespoon plain flour; 1 tablespoon butter or margarine;
about 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg;
Optional: small pinch salt
Make sure you buy the variety with the white stalks, not the green, for this recipe. Choose a bunch with long, plump stalks.
1. Wash silverbeet, cut the stale ends off & trim leaves off. Make sure you don't leave any green bits on the stalks. Cut stalks into 6-8 cm pieces.
2. Steam until just tender.
4. Melt butter in frying pan on moderate heat. Do not let it brown. Add stalks, stir gently.
3. Sprinkle flour & nutmeg on stalks. Add pinch of salt if desired. Stir gently till the flour absorbs the butter.
5. Add milk very gradually and cook, stirring gently, until sauce thickens.
6. Simmer gently for a couple of minutes, and it’s ready.
(The sauce should only just coat the vegetable pieces.)

Green But Good
There are recipes which can make the green leaves of silverbeet taste good, but they’re not dishes we ever knew back in the Forties, Fifties or Sixties. The Greek-style “spanakopita” (filo pastry pie with silverbeet and feta cheese) is probably the shining example that many Australians know today. I’d say it’s always silverbeet in the bought variety: true spinach tastes quite different: richer, and less of that hard iron aftertaste.
    I can’t recommend a tried and true recipe because I’ve never made it: any kind of pastry hates me—one theory is that I’ve got the wrong pH balance. There’s a nice-looking recipe for it on the SBS website, or there was when I first looked it up. Their IT nerds have fiddled with the site to such an extent that it’s now almost impossible to find anything, and thanks to their scores of confusing, distracting, unnecessary and just plain intrusive ads the pages load so slowly that you’ll probably give up, but amongst the bewildering array of choices that now feature for this one dish, it’s the one that at the time I researched it they were calling “Food Safari Spanakopita”. It’s by Dimitra Alfred and unlike several of the others it sensibly does not tell you to make your own filo pastry. (I kid you not. Are they MAD? The supermarkets are full of the stuff, we’re not living in cottages in the Greek hills!) This is the web address I found:

“Edible Leaves Curry”: The Indian Contribution
Mary Kennedy Core’s tepid mention in The Khaki Kook Book of the standard Indian way of a cooking a green leafy vegetable misrepresents the delicious dish. I had it in India, in New Delhi in the mid-1970s: the way of cooking it in the region was to use mustard oil rather than the ghee or butter recommended in the books written for well-off Westerners, and the green vegetable was usually saag (variously sag with an A macron, or sagh), that is, mustard greens. The cooking method was very simple, but it always tasted rich and creamy. You can use any cooking oil or butter, and the method is very tasty with silverbeet.
    Both of the following two recipes are for “spinach,” but silverbeet is even better: it stands up well to the combination of onion with garlic and chillies or with spices. The first uses the fresh vegetable; the second, a very useful recipe, uses frozen. (The frozen “spinach” sold in the Australian supermarkets is silverbeet, in any case!)

Dry Spinach Curry: Saag Bhajji
500 g/1 lb fresh spinach [or silverbeet];  1 medium onion;
2 cloves garlic;  2 green chillies;  1 teaspoon black pepper;
50 g/2 oz ghee or 60 ml/2 fl oz cooking oil;  1 teaspoon salt
Preparation time: 10 minutes. Cooking time: 15 minutes
Heat the ghee or cooking oil in a heavy saucepan. Peel the onion and garlic, chop them very finely and fry gently in the ghee until they just begin to turn colour.
Meanwhile prepare the spinach by trimming away any hard parts of the stalk and then chopping it very roughly.
Top and tail the green chillies and cut into 0.5-cm/1/4-inch pieces, add to the saucepan and continue to cook for a further minute.
Then add the spinach, turning it constantly until it begins to cook down.
If necessary add a small amount of water, although the idea of this dish is that it should have no water whatsoever. The moisture of the vegetable itself should be sufficient. Sprinkle in the salt and black pepper and once the spinach is fully cooked through it is ready to serve.
(Khalid Aziz. The Encyclopedia of Indian Cooking. London, Michael Joseph, 1983)

Dry Fried Spinach: Tali Saag

500-g/1 lb block frozen leaf spinach [silverbeet];  1 small onion;
1 teaspoon ground ginger;  1/2 teaspoon chilli powder;
1 teaspoon black pepper;  1 teaspoon salt;
50 g/2 oz ghee or 60 ml/2 fl oz cooking oil
Preparation time: 30 minutes. Cooking time: 20 minutes
Remove the spinach from the freezer and put to one side to allow to soften for 30 minutes or so.
Heat the ghee or cooking oil in a large frying pan. Peel and chop the onion finely and fry it gently for 1 minute.
Then add the ginger, black pepper and chilli powder. Stir in well for a further 30 seconds.
Add the spinach, stirring so it breaks up. Keep turning it with a wooden spoon to ensure that it is well dispersed in the spice mixture.
Sprinkle in the salt, continue to fry until the spinach is totally mixed in with the spices and onion and properly heated through.
Serve immediately.
(Khalid Aziz. The Encyclopedia of Indian Cooking. London, Michael Joseph, 1983)

    Serve either recipe as a side dish with a meat curry or a pulse curry, and with rice or chapattis, as you prefer. I’d usually have at least one other vegetable dish, such as a pumpkin curry. You can make a cheap but very tasty meal this way.

    Another nice way of making a silverbeet curry is to combine it with potato. Nothing like that grey mess that Mum forced on my baby brother in the long-ago, no! I’ve got several versions of this recipe, which is very popular in India. The spinach is once again a replacement for the original Indian leafy greens such as mustard, and silverbeet is an excellent substitute.

Alu Sagh (Potatoes with Spinach)
3/4 pound [340 g] spinach [or silverbeet];
2 pounds [1 kg] potatoes;  2 small onions; 1 clove garlic;
1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric;  1/2 teaspoon ground ginger;
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne or chilli powder, or to taste;
2 tablespoons butter;  pinch of salt
Peel and dice the potatoes. Slice the onion finely.
Melt the butter on medium heat and fry the onion pale gold.
Add the prepared potatoes, turmeric and garlic, pounded.
Close the lid and cook the potatoes on slow heat for 20 minutes, adding a tablespoon of water if the mixture seems too dry.
Then add chopped spinach, washed and thoroughly drained, and the ginger, salt and cayenne or chilli powder. Stir well and cook on gentle heat, uncovered, till done.
Serves 4.
(Slightly adapted, from: Dharam Jit Singh. Classic Cooking from India. London, Arco, 1958. Originally published: Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1956.)

Modern Variations
Heidi Swanson’s website, “101 Cookbooks: A Natural Foods Recipe Journal” is always good value if you’re looking for something vegetarian and unusual. Like most of us in real life she often just uses up what she has in her fridge. Her combos always turn out gorgeous, but funnily enough mine don’t! Try her “White ChardStew Recipe,” which uses both the stems and the stalks of silverbeet, for a lovely, nourishing meal in a bowl. You’ll need to scroll down to find the recipe instructions.

    A really nice addition to silverbeet is sour cream. I admit I tend to avoid it because it’s almost pure fat, but just for once—and especially if you’re going to do a vegetarian version of this dish—this New Zealand soup recipe is yummy (even if it does spell it “silver beet” rather than the way we grew up with it!):

Cream of Silver Beet Soup
Serves 4-6. This produces an excellent creamy soup.
500 g silver beet;  1 small onion, thinly sliced;
1 medium-sized potato, diced finely;  3 tablespoons sour cream;
800 ml chicken stock [or vegetable stock if you prefer];
2 tablespoons butter;  salt and pepper to taste;
1 lemon or whipped cream for garnishing
Wash the silver beet thoroughly. Remove the stalks and slice. Melt the butter in a large saucepan, add the stalks, onion and potato.
Cook gently with the lid on for 5-10 minutes until the potato is almost tender.
Add the roughly-chopped leaves and cook for another minute. Add the stock and seasoning.
Simmer for 5-10 minutes until the vegetables are tender.
Put through a blender or fine sieve.
Warm the sour cream in the saucepan. Gently pour in the soup, stirring well. Reheat without boiling.
Serve garnished with a thin slice of lemon and/or a small teaspoon of whipped cream.
The sour cream gives the soup a desirable sharp flavour. If you haven't any sour cream, use top milk or fresh cream. Add about a tablespoon of lemon juice to obtain a similar sharpness.
(Mary Browne, Helen Leach & Nancy Tichborne. The Cook's Garden: For Cooks Who Garden and Gardeners Who Cook. Wellington, [N.Z.], A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1980)

    I’d like to think this recipe and the other nice one in this book, for silverbeet fritters, have changed the New Zealand culinary approach to silverbeet over the last thirty-odd years, but sadly, the authors also advocate the standard method of boiling it (a centimetre of boiling salted water in a large pot). If you want dark, iron-tasting green sludge, do it. Mind you keep the butter well away from it, too.

Keeping It Simple
One of my favourite ways of cooking silverbeet these days is to just fry it with garlic, which suits its robustness:

Stir-Fried Silverbeet with Garlic
Per Person: 2-3 leaves silverbeet; 1 small clove garlic;
about 1/2 tablespoon olive oil;
Optional: small pinch salt
1. Wash the silverbeet thoroughly, drain and remove the stalks. Roughly chop the leaves into pieces about 1 cm across. Chop the garlic finely, and then crush the pieces with the blade of your knife. (This will help to eliminate that raw garlic taste.)
2. Heat the oil in an electric frypan or frying pan on moderate heat. Add garlic and cook for a few moments. Do not let it brown.
3. Add the silverbeet plus salt, if desired, and cook, stirring, until just tender and starting to wilt. Serve immediately.
Very easy but very tasty. I sometimes add a grinding of black pepper.
You could also add spices, Indian-style: half a teaspoon of ground cumin and a pinch of chilli powder or cayenne, fried with the garlic. Different but also tasty.

    Why not try it? It’ll make your silverbeet live again!